You see it all the time. You walk into a firm and there, in the often open hangar-like space, you see a sea of people at their computers with headphones on, attempting to maintain their own sense of space in the face of pervasive distractions and the constant white noise of the studio environment. While it can be inspiring to see and hear everything that is going on in a creative office, and while it is healthy to engage co-workers, there are times when people need to “tune out”. But the space of headphones can not equate the true space of being alone and quiet.
Fast Company recently queried “you” about why you hate open office layouts and the resulting onslaught of “disgust” yielded ten common complaints:
 It’s loud
 You are constantly interrupted
 No privacy
 There is always pressure to talk to people and be socially engaged
 People are always peeking at your monitor—“That looks cool!”
 Malodorous emanations
 The curse of headphones
 Everyone can hear every conversation about everything
 No control over workspace
 If you want privacy you have to stay super late or come super early
What all of this comes down to is how distracted you are. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests creative minds naturally gravitate toward and thrive in solitude.
The open office has been evolving since the 1950s when it was first developed in Hamburg Germany. This also coincides with when businesses, looking for new ways to increase creativity and productivity in the workforce, began tapping more into popular psychology. This, according to Susan Cain in the New York Times, is also when “brainstorming” came into our cultural lexicon. Though it may seem like second nature to us today, brainstorming was actually invented by an advertising executive named Alex Osborn. However, what often gets overlooked is that brainstorming was originally focused on eliciting quantity rather than quality. It was an easy way to get a lot of ideas out into the open in a short amount of time.
But research suggests that the all-important element of quality depends on being alone and uninterrupted. So after decades of realigning our work and educational settings in ways that privilege group dynamics, there is one spatial element critical to success that has been overlooked: quiet space.
In her article, “In Defense of Introverts,” ArchDaily’s Vanessa Quirk, adds another dimension to this in terms of introversion and extroversion. It might be easy to assume that architecture is the quintessential extroverted endeavor, emerging from the noise, chaos, and clutter of “creative office” environments, offices without cubicles, defined by “flexible”, “collaborative” spaces. And yet, the probability that your favorite architecture was created in sustained moments of silence and uninterrupted concentration is very high. It’s not just Peter Zumthor who works this way.
While she wouldn’t go back to a world of cubicles, Quirk argues that “we have swung the pendulum too far in the extrovert direction.” While our work and educational environments have been increasingly denuded of quiet spaces, our senses have been overloaded by constant, pervasive connectivity. In the era of collaboration, teamwork, and “creative office space” the value of solitude has been lost. But what about solitude in the production of architecture? Is there space for silent, contemplative work in our offices and academic studios? Should there be? How connected, and hence distracted, must we be before we start to wonder: might it be more healthy and productive to unplug, disconnect, and, perhaps more importantly, be alone?
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.